Maximum cooperation: Syrian case

Since signing a free trade agreement with Syria in 2007, Turkey’s trade relations with its southern neighbor have been boosted tremendously, climbing to a new high with a landmark decision last month to abolish visa requirements for citizens of the two countries. Bolstering relations has created much euphoria on both sides, with many hailing the free movement of people as a new Schengen-type zone in the region.

Turkey’s relationship with Syria was upgraded a couple of notches on the scale last month when the two countries signed an agreement on high-level strategic cooperation, which means that these two neighbors are committed to very close dialogue on issues ranging from the economy to the war on terror. This bilateral cooperation accord, called the High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council Agreement, envisages top ministers from the two countries meeting yearly.

As part of this strategic agreement, on Oct. 13, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu will pay a one-day visit to Syria to meet with his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moallem, and the first part of the meeting will be held in Aleppo. The second part of the meeting will be held in Gaziantep, a major Turkish city with a strong industrial base, after the two ministers walk across the border. A large entourage of Turkish press, including our veteran diplomatic correspondent Emine Kart, will be there to witness this historic event.

The enhanced relations with Syria could not come at a better time for Turkey as the windfall from increased trade is helping ease the negative effects of the global economic crisis on Turkish businesses. It also helps offset the contraction in our export markets, especially the European Union. Recent data show that Turkey’s exports to EU member states took a sharp dive during the economic crisis, no longer making up a 50 percent share in Turkey’s export portfolio. As of August, 45 percent of Turkish exports were to EU countries. The volume of exports dropped by 24.3 percent in August compared to the same period last year.

Therefore it is worth noting that increased commerce with Syria and other neighboring countries plays a cushioning effect on the hardships of the crisis, which took a toll on the Turkish real economy. By no means is Syria alone in this account. Turkish exports to Egypt jumped by 140 percent in the first seven months of the year compared to same period of 2008, while this increase was 40 percent for both Iraq and Morocco.

When we examine the latest data announced by the Turkish Statistics Institute (TurkStat), we see that Turkey upped its exports to Syria by 44 percent just in August in a month-to-month comparison. Our exports increased to $147 million in August from $102 million in the same month last year. Turkey exported $1.1 billion worth of goods to Syria in 2008, a 40 percent increase from 2007 figures. By the end of 2009, Turkish exports to Syria are slated to greatly exceed the 2008 figure despite the economic crisis. In the first eight months of the year, the export figure already reached $900 million.

Over the summer, Turkey unveiled a road map to boost mutual trade relations with Syria. Following the third meeting of the Turkey-Syria Partnership Council in İstanbul in July between Turkish Foreign Trade Minister Zafer Çağlayan and Syrian Economy and Trade Minister Amir Husni Lutfi, Çağlayan said the parties had agreed to maintain permanent cooperation in trade and had signed a memorandum of understanding, signaling an institutional framework to solidify cooperation. The countries are also planning to organize a Turkey-Syria Economic Forum in the first quarter of 2010. Moreover there has been substantial investment in Syria by Turkish companies, especially in Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city.

In fact, if you add all these cooperative steps, Turkey is on its way to integrating its economy with Syria, very much like the European Economic Community — the predecessor of the EU — did in the past. The free movement of people and goods, ever-increasing trade volume, high-level joint cabinet meetings, frequent visits of heads of state and government on both sides, integrated energy corridors and a rise in the number of tourists from both countries serve to solidify close relations with Syria.

If this plays out as Mr. Davutoğlu, the architect of the “maximum cooperation” approach in Turkish foreign policy, has expected, the Syrian case will be win-win for both sides and can be a great model for other countries in the region as well. We already have similar close contacts with Iraq and Iran. Turkey can replicate this model with other players in the region such as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Gulf and North African countries.

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